From the mid-19th
century onwards Belle-Île, a French island off the coast of Brittany in the département of the Morbihan, had been a popular location for artists. Australian born artist John Peter Russell settled at Belle-Île where he established an artists' colony. While there he befriended Claude Monet who in the late 1880s painted his famous series of sea side cliffs and rock formations. Almost a decade later, Russell played host to another up-and-coming artist, Henri Matisse, who visited and painted there during the three summers of 1895 to 1897. Russell spent many hours with Matisse and it is said that he introduced Impressionism to him as in 1895 the young painter, 25 years of age, was still working in a very old fashioned Flemish style. Both artists spent hours discussing the importance of light and how light and colour could be captured at different times of the day and under different weather conditions. Most importantly, Russel introduced Matisse to the work of his friend from Atelier Cormon, Vincent Van Gogh, who at this time was still not acknowledged as a great forerunner.
In the three year period punctuated by summers at Belle Ile, Matisse's style changed radically. As the present painting exemplifies, Belle-Île offered Matisse a remote and secluded subject with spectacular cliff and rock structures enveloped in ever changing light and atmospheric effects. It was the perfect place for radical experimentation on the motif and by 1897 the change was complete. The painting Belle-Île-en-Mer features almost abstract qualities. Later in his life, commenting on his relationship with Russel, Matisse would say: "...Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained colour theory to me...". The present painting is a fascinating testament to the relationship between Russel and Matisse and to the far-reaching influence of Belle-Île on the work of a painter that was to become one of the key figures of modern painting.